Summary and Current Status
On May 20, 2009, longtime Libyan prisoner of conscience Fathi el-Jahmi died at the Arab Medical Center in Jordan. On May 5, two days after he went into a coma, he was flown by the Libyan authorities to Amman, accompanied by his son, and underwent surgery on May 7. Mr. el-Jahmi never came out of the coma. He was buried the day after he died in a public cemetery in Hawari, Benghazi, Libya. Final prayers were given in a nearby mosque.
Fathi el-Jahmi was a Libyan civil engineer and former provincial governor who had twice been arrested for his peaceful criticism of the Libyan government and its leader, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. Following his first arrest in October 2002, a court sentenced Mr. el-Jahmi to five years in prison. An appeals court ordered his release in early March 2004, after he served a suspended sentence of one year.
Following his release Mr. el-Jahmi met with U.S. diplomats and gave interviews to the foreign media in which he called for political reform and criticized Colonel al-Gaddafi. He was arrested a second time on March 26, 2004. All of the charges reported to have been brought against Mr. el-Jahmi—supporting a group, organization or association prohibited by law, trying to overthrow the Libyan government, insulting Colonel al-Gaddafi, contacting foreign authorities, and “scheming with a foreign state in peacetime”—appear to stem from the peaceful exercise of his fundamental rights of freedom of expression and association. Following a secret trial that failed to meet international standards for fairness, a court reportedly ruled in May 2006 that he was mentally unfit for trial and ordered him detained in a psychiatric hospital. Amnesty International considered Mr. el-Jahmi to be a “prisoner of conscience.”
Mr. el-Jahmi’s health steadily deteriorated during his incarceration. He reportedly suffered from coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, and prostatic hypertrophy. Although the Libyan government asserted in March 2008 that Mr. el-Jahmi had been released from confinement and was a free man “in the care of his family,” he remained held under state custody at Tripoli Medical Center in a locked hospital room guarded by security officers. According to Human Rights Watch researchers and an independent medical expert from Physicians for Human Rights who visited him there, Mr. el-Jahmi was not free to leave his hospital room, and visits by family members had to be approved by state security. Although the Libyan government claimed Mr. el-Jahmi was free, his repeated requests to go abroad for medical treatment were refused.
For the first five months of 2009, however, reports indicated that Mr. el-Jahmi was denied critical medical care. As a result his health reportedly worsened to the point that he was no longer able to move, eat, or drink without assistance and could speak only with great difficulty. Although Mr. el-Jahmi was held at the state-run Tripoli Medical Center, he was denied any regular nursing and medical care. Family members brought the only food and drink he received each day and tended to his personal hygiene during their two-hour visits.
On April 25 and 26, 2009, researchers from Human Rights Watch visited Mr. el-Jahmi at the Tripoli Medical Center. They reported that he was weak, emaciated, could barely speak, and could not lift his head or arms. He told them that he wanted to go home, but that he was not free to do so.
Mr. el-Jahmi was married and had seven adult children and one grandaughter. For the decade following completion of his studies at the College of Engineering at Tripoli University in 1968, he had a distinguished career. Immediately upon graduation, he worked briefly as a civil engineer in the Libyan Ministry of Public Works. Following the coup d’état by Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi in September 1969, Mr. el-Jahmi was appointed executive director of a government-owned construction company based in Al-Baida, Libya. In 1970, he was appointed governor of the Gulf province, Libya’s largest province and the location of most of the country’s oil resources. In 1971 he was removed from his post as governor and appointed head of the National Planning Committee in Tripoli. In late 1972, Mr. el-Jahmi resigned from the committee to start his own engineering and architectural businesses in Libya, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In 1978, when the Libyan government nationalized all private businesses and private properties, Mr. el-Jahmi lost his businesses in Libya. This action prompted him to begin to voice his opposition to the Libyan government’s policies and its leader, Colonel al-Gaddafi.
Over the course of three decades (since 1978), Mr. el-Jahmi used legal and peaceful means to express his criticisms of the Libyan regime and to publicly call for political reforms. He reportedly always emphasized that he spoke as an individual, independent of any political group. Reports indicate that he wrote letters to Colonel al-Gaddafi and to international political figures about his opposition to tyranny and his support of freedom and free speech.
In 1987, Mr. el-Jahmi successfully challenged in court a government ban on teaching English to Libyan students. The ban decree had been issued by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s cousin who was then minister of education, Ahmad Ibrahim. Credible sources allege that, in 1990, in retaliation for the court challenge, Mr. Ibrahim orchestrated an attack against Mr. el-Jahmi and his family. Reports indicate that gunmen entered the family’s house, beat Mr. el-Jahmi, and stabbed him in the leg. His wife was also reportedly stabbed, and the family was held hostage for several hours. In 2000, Mr. el-Jahmi reportedly fasted for 13 days to protest the Libyan government’s continued harassment of his family.
One of Libya’s most prominent political dissidents, Mr. el-Jahmi was incarcerated twice for carrying our peaceful political activities critical of his government. His first arrest occurred on October 19, 2002, at a session of the Basic People’s Congress in al-Manshia, Bin Ashour, a suburb of Tripoli. At the congress, he reportedly stated that reform would never take place in Libya in the absence of a constitution, pluralism, and democracy. He reportedly went on to question how issues faced in the country could be addressed in a meaningful way when Libya was “ruled by criminals.” Apparently in response to his statement, Mr. el-Jahmi was arrested by Libya’s internal security forces. He was placed in pre-trial detention for several months and was charged with “defaming the Leader of the Revolution.” Mr. el-Jahmi stated that he was tried twice on this charge by the People’s Court in two different districts within Tripoli. (According to numerous reputable international human rights organizations, the People’s Court, abolished by Libya’s legislative branch in January 2005, routinely violated defendants’ rights to a fair trial and imposed harsh sentences on proponents of peaceful political change.) He reportedly received two separate sentences, one of five years’ imprisonment and the other, suspended, of eight months’ imprisonment. He appealed his five-year sentence before the People’s Court of Appeal, but considerable time passed and the court did not issue a ruling on it. Finally, on March 10, 2004, nine days after U.S. Senator Joseph Biden requested Mr. el-Jahmi’s release from prison in a face-to-face meeting with Colonel al-Gaddafi, the ruling was issued. The People’s Court of Appeal rescinded Mr. el-Jahmi’s five-year prison sentence, gave him a suspended sentence of one year, and ordered his release. He was set free on March 12, 2004.
The CHR understands that, following his release from prison, it was evident that Mr. el-Jahmi was put under surveillance because there were at least ten cars full of members of the Libyan security forces parked around his house at all times. In spite of this heavy surveillance, Mr. el-Jahmi gave interviews to the foreign media, including Dubai-based El Arabiya and U.S.-based Al Hurra satellite news channels, in which he again criticized Libyan leader al-Gaddafi and called for political reform. According to The New York Times, Mr. el-Jahmi called Colonel al-Gaddafi “a war criminal and a terrorist.” A Boston Globe editorial quoted Mr. el-Jahmi as saying of Colonel al-Gaddafi, “All that is left for him to do is hand us a prayer carpet and ask us to bow before his picture and worship him.” A Washington Post newspaper article reported that Mr. el-Jahmi and his eldest son, Muhammad Fathi el-Jahmi, met with a U.S. diplomat at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli to express gratitude for U.S. help in gaining his release. The same article said that two U.S. diplomats visited Mr. el-Jahmi’s home.
Two weeks after his release from prison, on March 26, 2004, Mr. el-Jahmi reportedly was injured when a group of demonstrators, likely organized by the security services, marched to his house and threatened to kill him. Later that same night, security agents arrested Mr. el-Jahmi for a second time. His eldest son, Muhammad Fathi el-Jahmi, then age 27, and his wife, Fawzia ‘Abdullah Gogha, were also arrested. Mr. el-Jahmi’s son and wife were detained without charge for several months by the Internal Security Agency. They were released on September 23 and November 4, 2004, respectively. Mr. el-Jahmi, however, remained in state custody until his death. His legal status was unclear, however, for reasons that are explained more fully below.
Libyan authorities repeatedly justified Mr. el-Jahmi’s detention and harsh conditions of confinement with claims that he was mentally ill. Reports indicate that Mr. el-Jahmi was initially detained in the custody of the Anti-Terror Branch of Libya’s Internal Security Agency on the outskirts of Tripoli. In 2005, the head of Libya’s Internal Security Agency, Colonel Tohamy Khaled, reportedly told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Mr. el-Jahmi was being held in a special facility for his own safety because he was “mentally deranged” and explained further that:
I’m responsible for his health care, his detention, and I want to say this: if this man was not detained, because he provoked people, they could have attacked him in his home. Therefore, he is facing trial … He’s in special detention because he’s mentally disturbed and we’re worried he will cause a problem for us.
Colonel al-Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, also reportedly said that Mr. el-Jahmi was being held for his own protection after “insulting the leader.”
Amnesty International (AI) has reported that, during the period that Mr. el-Jahmi was held in a special facility of Libya’s Internal Security Agency, he was not permitted to receive mail or read books or newspapers. He was held in incommunicado detention, with only sporadic family visits. On those few occasions when Mr. el-Jahmi was permitted to visit his family, he was brought by vehicle to whatever location the Internal Security Agency had arranged for the meeting to be held. Visits, which reportedly occurred in the presence of a security agent, varied in length from 15 to 40 minutes.
There was a lengthy period of time—from August 2006 until the beginning of 2008—when Mr. el-Jahmi was not permitted to have family visits. According to an article that appeared in the Washington Post, during a visit by two of his sons in August 2006, Mr. el-Jahmi told them that his supply of medications had run out and had not been refilled. The CHR understands that, subsequently, the family made numerous requests to the proper authorities to visit Mr. el-Jahmi in detention and to be permitted to provide him with necessary medications. Regrettably, until early 2008, all of these requests reportedly were denied, without any explanation of Mr. el-Jahmi’s place of detention, conditions of confinement, or health status.
During the sixteen months that Mr. el-Jahmi had no contact with his family, there was heightened concern about his physical well-being because it was well-documented that he had been in serious ill-health for an extended period of time. In 1995, he suffered chest pain and eventually traveled to Jordan where coronary artery narrowing was diagnosed and a single coronary stent implanted. In February 2005, Dr. Joost Den Otter, a Dutch medical doctor and prison health expert sent by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations (IFHHRO), traveled to Tripoli to perform a medical assessment of Mr. el-Jahmi. Dr. Den Otter evaluated the Libyan government’s assertions that Mr. el-Jahmi is mentally ill and found them to be baseless. He determined that Mr. el-Jahmi had been receiving only “sporadic and inadequate medical treatment,” despite “suffering from several chronic and mutually adverse conditions (diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease) that are independently life threatening and difficult to control.” He reported that Mr. el-Jahmi had been subjected to interrogations in secret hearings on nearly a weekly basis and without an attorney present. Based on his assessment, Dr. Den Otter reached the conclusion that Mr. el-Jahmi’s isolated confinement and inadequate treatment constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Early in 2008, two reputable international human rights organizations reported an alarming deterioration in Mr. el-Jahmi’s health. According to an AI Urgent Action dated January 29, 2008, people who had seen Mr. el-Jahmi said that he barely has the strength to speak and appears emaciated, but with swollen legs. A press release issued by HRW about the same time stated that Mr. el-Jahmi “is seriously ill and in urgent need of medical care.” In response to these reports, the al-Gaddafi International Foundation for Philanthropy and Development—headed by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s son, Mr. al-Islam—in early February 2008, issued a public denial of HRW’s claim and indicated in a public statement that Mr. el-Jahmi had been transferred to the Tripoli Medical Center, a state-run hospital, because he is “mentally deranged.” On March 11, 2008, it reported that Mr. el-Jahmi had been released and “was now in the care of his family.” Members of Mr. el-Jahmi’s family vigorously refuted both claims. AI subsequently confirmed that, in fact, Mr. el-Jahmi remained in state custody at the Tripoli Medical Center and was under the supervision of security officers who were present outside of his hospital room 24 hours a day.
In the face of mounting international pressure to clarify Mr. el-Jahmi’s health status, the al-Gaddafi Foundation facilitated a visit to Libya on March 13 and 14, 2008, by two HRW representatives and Dr. Scott Allen, a medical doctor and prison health expert who serves as an advisor to PHR. Dr. Allen is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Rhode Island. The PHR/HRW delegation first met with a cardiologist at Tripoli Medical Center who said that he had been treating Mr. el-Jahmi since he was brought there in July 2007 because he was suffering from florid congestive heart failure, with symptoms of shortness of breath and swelling of the legs and ankles. Dr. Allen then took Mr. el-Jahmi’s medical history and performed a thorough physical exam and mental status exam. Mr. el-Jahmi reportedly told the PHR/HRW delegation that his health significantly declined during the roughly one year period that he was held at a psychiatric hospital because the authorities denied him access to needed medications and a doctor, as well as family visits. Dr. Allen’s medical evaluation of Mr. el-Jahmi found that he suffers from coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, and prostatic hypertrophy with elevated PSA blood test. Dr. Allen found no evidence of significant mood or thought disorders and noted that Mr. el-Jahmi was not taking any psychiatric medications at the time of the evaluation. Dr. Allen determined that the medical treatment that Mr. el-Jahmi had received at Tripoli Medical Center from July 2007 until Marcy 2008 met standards of care for his illnesses and was comparable to care that would be available abroad and that his improvement in cardiac function while at the facility had been dramatic. He concurred with Mr. el-Jahmi’s cardiologist that he should have a prostrate biopsy to exclude prostate cancer and a cardiac catherization and pointed out that there is some urgency to the latter diagnostic test because, “There is a very real risk of an acute cardiac ischemic event, including heart attack or death.” When Dr. Allen privately conveyed this fact to Mr. el-Jahmi, the patient reportedly said that he had limited trust in his current doctors and, therefore, would not consent to having the needed invasive procedures performed at the Tripoli Medical Center. He expressed a clear preference to go abroad to seek treatment, as he had done in the past. In light of this, in his evaluation Dr. Allen noted that the issue of trust poses a major obstacle because it is the foundation of successful medical care. Given that Mr. el-Jahmi appeared to be stable at that time, Dr. Allen reached the conclusion that care abroad would be the only option to remedy this problem.
Following their delegation visit to Libya, PHR and HRW reported that, in May 2006, following a secret trial that began in late 2005, a Libyan court determined Mr. el-Jahmi to be mentally unfit for trial and ordered him detained at a psychiatric hospital. The particular court before which Mr. el-Jahmi was tried and which issued this ruling is unknown. The trial was not public, and Mr. el-Jahmi’s family was not informed that it was taking place. Similarly, the court’s decision is not public, and Libyan authorities reportedly failed to inform his family about it. PHR and HRW requested, but never received a copy of the court’s order. Both organizations expressed concern about the apparent misuse of psychiatry and medical diagnosis to justify Mr. el-Jahmi’s detention.
In July 2006, AI was informed by Libya’s General People’s Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation that Mr. el-Jahmi was being tried on charges of “exchanging information with employees of a foreign state causing harm to the interests of the country and providing them with information with the aim of their states attacking the Great Jamahiriya” and “scheming with a foreign state in peacetime.” The committee reportedly also stated that Mr. el-Jahmi had access to a lawyer, but did not disclose which court would be hearing his case. According to AI, the charges against Mr. el-Jahmi related to his press interviews and meetings with U.S. diplomats in March 2004. AI therefore considered him to be a prisoner of conscience who had been detained solely for acts which involved the non-violent exercise of his right to freedom of expression. Such actions are defended under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Libya has ratified.
It is unclear whether any legal remedies were made available to Mr. el-Jahmi to seek the review or appeal of the decision issued by the court that had jurisdiction in his case.
There was broad consensus within the international community that Mr. el-Jahmi should have been released on both legal and humanitarian grounds. AI, HRW, PHR, and IFHHRO all called for his immediate and unconditional release. The U.S. government—which restored full diplomatic relations with Libya in May 2006—called on the Libyan government to release Mr. el-Jahmi as well and repeatedly raised his case with senior officials.
According to reliable reports, Mr. el-Jahmi’s health deteriorated further during the first four months of 2009 because he was denied the medical care that he needed. Although he reportedly was bedridden and unable to eat or drink on his own or speak more than a few words at a time, Mr. el-Jahmi was not moved into intensive care as his family had requested. His family members reportedly had to bring food to the hospital for him, feed him, change his diapers and bedding, and care for him during the two hours a day that they were permitted to visit him in his room because health professionals at the hospital were not regularly performing these tasks. As stated in the Current Status section of this summary, the CHR learned that, during the first week of May 2009, Mr. el-Jahmi was transferred from the Tripoli Medical Center in Libya to the Arab Medical Center in Amman, Jordan. Having slipped into a coma two days before arriving in Jordan, he never regained consciousness and died on May 20, 2009.